Grass-roots effort on Fond du Lac Reservation seeks to stem Native Mob
After learning that authorities had found the body of a missing Floodwood woman on the Fond du Lac Reservation and -- on top of that -- suspected she was killed by a local member of the Native Mob gang, Bettina Johnsen decided enough was enough.
She decided it was time to fight back, in ways both modern and old-fashioned. She started a Facebook page, "Take Back Our Rez," the same day -- Oct. 4 -- and organized a march against violence four days later on the reservation.
An image and words of Sitting Bull sit front and center on the Facebook page: "Let Us Put Our Minds Together And See What Life We Can Make For Our Children -- Sitting Bull."
Johnsen said she's a mom first, and she's mad about what is happening to the place where she grew up and where her children go to school.
"I'm a mom of three little ones, and I'm terrified to bring them up (here) because of the gang violence and drug use," Johnsen said. The problem isn't just on the reservation, but also in Cloquet and the surrounding area, she added. "We want to come together and make it public that we're not going to put up with it anymore."
Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver expressed her support for the grassroots movement.
"I am proud of the community, that they are expressing the need to find community-based solutions and deterrents to these behaviors," Diver said.
On Thursday, Michael William Siewert, 22, and Joseph Allen Yellow Jr., 17, both of Duluth, were charged with intentional second-degree murder in the death of Cristyna Leah Watson, 25, of Floodwood, whose body was found on property off Reservation Road. Siewert struck her in the head with a hammer, and Yellow strangled her with his hands, according to the criminal complaints against them.
Authorities have identified Siewert as a member of the Native Mob. He was charged Oct. 5 with an unrelated crime -- of allegedly shooting a man in the foot on the Fond du Lac Reservation in August as punishment for "certain gang-related activity," according to the complaint.
More than 50 people participated in Monday's march along Big Lake Road from Fond du Lac Gas and Grocery to the Tribal Center, a march Johnsen acknowledged was organized on the fly.
Community members gathered Thursday night at the Tribal Center to continue their discussion about gangs and violence. Members of the news media were excluded from the meeting.
Johnsen said, however, that residents are talking about ways they can help stem the tide of youth crime. "The more input, the better," she said. "We want to brainstorm ideas, talk about what people should do when they see things."
They had another incident of violence to add to their list of worries. Law enforcement officials announced Thursday that they are investigating a possible drive-by shooting in the Fond du Lac Homes area Tuesday night.
Cloquet police said they were called shortly before 10:30 p.m. on a report of the sound of a gunshot. Officers were told that a male was standing in a driveway when several individuals in a four-door silver or gray sedan drove by and fired a gun from the vehicle and then sped off, according to a news release from the Cloquet Police Department. The person believed to be the target of the shooting was not hurt and left the area before officers arrived, police said, but he was located and interviewed later.
'Smallest tip' is helpful
According to Duluth Police Sgt. Rodney Wilson, who serves on the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, the best thing concerned citizens can do is call their local police force, even if it's something they think might not be important enough.
"Even if something doesn't seem like a big deal, report it," said Wilson. When asked whether police would want to know about gang signs painted in a central Cloquet alleyway, he said: "Even the smallest tip from a citizen may be something that corroborates an investigation. You know what's normal in your neighborhood. Even if police drive through, you know who belongs in which house. We rely on the public to help us out."
The Native Mob originated in Minneapolis in the early 1990s, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for Minnesota, which says that members routinely engage in drug trafficking, assault, robbery and murder. Membership is estimated at 200, with new members, including juveniles, regularly recruited from communities with large populations of young, male Native Americans. Association with the gang is often signified by wearing red and black clothing or sporting gang-related tattoos.
Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said the Native Mob has worked hard to establish a presence in the state and in northern Minnesota, "specifically in those communities that have reservations."
He said that officials have seen Native Mob and other gang "tagging" marks -- graffiti gang symbols -- spray-painted on city bridges and in parks as well as on private property in the heart of the city.
"Every gang has its moniker that they spray-paint and identify with," Lamirande said. "Some of them may be legit; some may be wannabes."
He cautioned that so-called "wannabes" should also be treated with care.
"They can be dangerous," Lamirande said. "They're sometimes willing to do some very violent things in order to establish themselves."
New gang leaders emerge
Diver said reservation officials have "taken strides to try to keep gang activity down," but she noted that officials did see a recent increase in gang activity after federal indictments against a number of high-ranking gang members on other reservations earlier this year.
Wilson said that, unlike some occasional big-city gang members who occasionally travel north to sell drugs, the Native Mob is well-organized. They hold monthly meetings around the state -- including in Duluth, he said -- and enforce a hierarchy of authority within the gang.
The Duluth police officer said the Native Mob doesn't limit itself to reservations either; they are in the larger cities around that state and have a strong presence in the Minnesota prison system.
"These guys are no joke," he said. "They use violence to run the land and further their drug trafficking. They've been involved in drive-by shootings, murders, a lot of illegal activities."
Although the indictments of 24 alleged Native Mob leaders in January disrupted many of the gang's activities, Wilson said it wasn't a killing blow.
"They basically took out the leadership of the Native Mob," he said. "Like any organization, it might take a while to rebuild and reload, but you'll see younger people stepping into those roles. They're always recruiting young people to be part of the gang."
That's exactly what Johnsen wants to stop. She wants more people to take responsibility for reporting things they see that are illegal and might be related to gang activities. She is also hoping to organize more marches, including one in Cloquet off the reservation, and more meetings.
"Over the last 10 years, drugs have really increased," she said. "It's scary. You never know if the person next door is involved. In order for us to get this to stop, people have to come forward so it doesn't increase any more.
"If you see something, you have to step forward. It starts there. It has to start somewhere."